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Lessons from the limestone yard sign

By Scott Tibbs, January 15, 2004

Yes, this does seem like Deja Vu, but there is a major difference between this picture and the previous picture. The big limestone sign is gone.

Before last year's city elections, a large sign was erected on Tapp Road that said "Mark Kruzan for Mayor". It was larger than a normal yard sign, but it isn't unusual to see a political sign supporting one candidate or another. What was unusual about this sign is that it was made of limestone with "Kruzan for Mayor" painted on it. The sign remained until mid-January, when it was finally removed.

Interestingly enough, the city's zoning ordinance says: "Political signs... shall not exceed five square feet and shall be removed within seven days of the subject event."

We have heard complaining from some Democrats about political yard signs, and three elected Democrats (two of whom were defeated in their bids for re-election) voted for an amendment before the County Plan Commission to significantly reduce the allowed size of political yard signs in the county. But I did not hear a peep from local Democrats about this large limestone billboard. I also have not seen the Herald-Times mention this issue. I guess the H-T is too busy writing anonymous editorials complaining about anonymous Internet message board posts.

The double standard is clear. An ordinance, passed by Democrats, was not enforced on a sign advocating for a Democratic candidate. If the Democrats on the City Council (as well as Mayor Kruzan) disagree with or are reluctant to enforce the ordinance, they should repeal the ordinance.

But while this sign represents a double standard from Democrats, the larger issue here is one of free speech. The main reason so many conservatives are pointing out the double standard is that we believe that the ordinance itself is unjustified. Why do we have such restrictive limits on yard signs to begin with? Some regulations are required for safety reasons, but it seems the City Council felt (and apparently still feels, since this is still on the books) that the "unattractiveness" of large signs is a significant reason to curtail political free speech.

When the yard sign limits came before the county Planning Commission, several citizens (including yours truly) stayed until past midnight to protest the limitations on political speech. The sign ordinance generated enough of a public outcry that it failed 0-3 when it came before the County Commissioners.

Political free speech is a fundamental right. While a yard sign is not a deep political statement (though that is irrelevant to the overall issue of protecting political speech), it is an important facet of local campaigns and a useful way for candidates to increase their name identification. The city's restrictions political speech in its yard sign limitations are too great a limitation on freedom of speech.

This is not to say that some restrictions are not needed. Indeed, signs should not block line-of-sight for drivers and create a traffic hazard. Signs should not be in the public right of way. Most conservatives agree with these reasonable regulations. The issue with the "five square feet" limit (which is not very much, do the math) is that aesthetics are not more important than the right to political speech.

The City Council should revisit and loosen its planning ordinance regarding political yard signs. The double standard is what brought this issue to the forefront, but the principle of free speech has always been the most important issue.